The concept of mestizaje expresses the tensions, contradictions, and ambiguities of its birth in the New World. More important, it is a concept that continues to have spiritual and aesthetic dimensions. Mestizaje refers to racial and/or cultural mixing of Amerindians with Europeans, but the literal connotation of the word does not illuminate its theoretical applications and its more recent transformations. Since its inception in the New World and during those moments when race was a significant factor in social standing, mestizaje has been invoked to remedy social inequality and the misfiring of democracy.
In 1925 José Vasconcelos, the Mexican philosopher and educator, wrote La raza cósmica both to challenge Western theories of racial superiority and purity and to offer a new view about the mixing of African, European, and indigenous peoples in Mexico and throughout Latin America. The essay was an effort to undercut the maligned position of indigenous people and their material domination since the conquest, but it was unable to break completely from the civilizing motives of New Spain. Mestizaje was the political ideology of modern national identity, unity, and social progress. Yet Vasconcelos's vision pointed to Iberian culture, particularly Christianity, as the source for modernization and progress. Mexican nationalism has continued to construct its citizens as mestizos.
The material and ideological weight of the conquest was also difficult to shake in earlier formations of mestizaje. Even while under Spanish rule, criollos exalted the Aztec or Inca past and condemned the conquest, but their celebration of mestizaje did not include the elimination of economic domination, political disempowerment, and cultural genocide of indigenous populations. Throughout New Spain, claims of mestizaje were meant to indicate a bond against the peninsulares, the Spanish settlers with exclusive rights to high political office, and to legitimate creole equality with peninsulares at home and in Europe. Other classifications of mixture in the caste system were not exalted, and the status of mulattos and others was not reconsidered. Historians agree that during the colonial, independence, and revolutionary periods, mestizaje functioned to reduce cultural, linguistic, and political diversity in Mexico and to authorize the privileged status of ruling elites. In short, the original concept emphasized the assimilation and appropriation of indigenous cultures and the promise of progress and justice through Europe. As such, hybridity was cloaked under the banner of national unity. For the Mexican philosopher Octavio Paz (1914–1998), however, the trauma of mestizaje serves as a symbol of illegitimacy, a concept he develops in Labyrinth of Solitude (1961) and a foundation of his argument on Mexican national character.
Chicanos and Mestizaje
In contrast, contemporary expressions of mestizaje emphasize hybrid cultural experiences and the relations of power. The social position of contemporary thinkers somewhat explains the late-twentieth-century formulations of mestizaje. Whereas Mexican philosophers were members of the dominant sectors of society, Chicana and Chicano social critics, artists, and creative writers who reformulated mestizaje beginning in the late 1960s did not enjoy such a place in the United States or Latin America. In multiple genres, the earliest Chicano articulations of mestizaje were a strategy of affirmation, liberation, and identity.
Mexican Americans join three historical moments and expand the original concept of mestizaje. The first event occurred in 1521 with the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire; el segundo mestizaje (the second cultural mixing) occurred at the end of the Mexican-American War (1846–1848), in which the United States annexed over half of Mexico's territory; and the third event is the contemporary cultural interchange among Chicanos and European Americans. All three moments originate in disempowerment and suggest a rebirth. Particularly since the second historical moment, Chicanos and Chicanas have positioned mestizaje as an alternative to the social contract of assimilation. In making parallel the historical legacies of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, mestizaje no longer serves a pluralist agenda. In the United States, it functions as an antidote to modern anti-Indian and anti-Mexican sentiments, and although alliances with Native American populations in the American Southwest have been formed, they do not continue to anchor Chicano thought in the same way that Mexico's indigenous and pre-Columbian civilizations inform Chicano and Chicana mestizaje.
Chicano mestizaje enacts a void and a congested condition. For example, the poem "I Am Joaquin" (1967) by Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales expresses a fusion of two opposites, Mexico and the United States, which are blended to form a third cultural experience: Chicano. The hybrid Chicano is neither Mexican nor American. Artists such as Amado Peña (with "Mestizo," silkscreen, 1974) and Emanuel Martinez (with "Mestizo Banner," silkscreen on canvas, 1967) produced the fusion in graphic form with a mestizo tripartite head in which two profiles faced left and right and were united in the third face in frontal position. Other artistic and scholarly proposals overdetermined a gendered mestizaje, emphasizing select indigenous characteristics and a masculine repertoire.
Critique and Reformulation
While social analysts agree that mestizaje has recuperative properties for Mexican Americans and that it successfully challenges Paz's diagnosis of a mixed nation as pathological, the neoindigenous emphasis can be ironically similar to Western distortions of native peoples, as both rely on a timeless, primordial culture. Chicano/a social critics such as Norma Alarcón and Chon A. Noriega point out that this use of mestizaje constructs a "pure" origin and relies on a static and unchanging past. The essentialist disposition of mestizaje, particularly the romantic neoindigenous perspective, clashes with the reality of Native American experiences as well as indigenous social and political struggles throughout the Americas. Furthermore, as Chicana feminists point out, an essentialist view of Mexican-origin people in the United States also distorts differences and inequalities within said communities. Chicana feminist challenges to patriarchy and homophobia helped to develop the critique of essentialism, and this had a lasting effect on the contemporary notion of mestizaje.
In her foundational book, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), Gloria Anzaldúa fleshes out and complicates mestizaje. Performing a postmodern style that mixes autobiography, poetry, mythology, historical document, and documentation into theoretical proclamation, she problematizes conventions of race, nation, sexuality, and gender, drawing attention to fluidity within identity rather than a singular subject position. According to Anzaldúa, mestizaje is the demystification of social boundaries and territorial borders. Thus conceived, the spaces between cultures and nations are porous and flexible. However, it is not just her acknowledgment of internal complexities that makes a mestiza consciousness significant. Anzaldúa does not imagine distinctions in opposition to each other but acknowledges concurrent identities, shifting strategies, and capacities for change.
The reformulated concept is more successful at challenging the premise of white racial superiority, purity, and essentialism. Mestizaje is a source of creativity, survival, and triumph. Unlike Mexican and Chicano cultural-nationalist formulations of mestizaje, Anzaldúa acknowledges all combinations and the places of contradiction that can result. Always synthesizing, mestizaje is a force of movement, combination, and transformation. Her own thinking about mestizaje fuses with the Nahuatl concept of nepantla (middle place or place of passage), thereby adding the potential for agency within the concept.
Spread and Influence
Nonlinear thought and unfixed identities have intellectual and political appeal for numerous fields, especially those also influenced by poststructural and postmodern schools of thought. Because of the liberatory dimensions of the concept of mestizaje, it is widely used in postcolonial, ethnic, and feminist studies and Latino theology. Most credit Anzaldúa with creating the aperture for understanding and theorizing about the ability to have multiple social perspectives and positions with concrete material forms of oppression or privilege.
The scholars Chela Sandoval and Emma Pérez, as well as the Latino theologian Virgilio Elizondo, explore the implications of mestiza consciousness for U.S. Third World feminists, including Chicana feminists and Latino Catholic congregations, respectively. For Elizondo, mestizaje is divine grace, which elevates the spiritual qualities of mestizaje as articulated by Vasconcelos but without the Eurocentric imperative. Mestizaje becomes the existence that resurrects humanity, and all have the potential for salvation since Elizondo ultimately describes all cross-cultural contacts as mestizaje. Expansions of the concept by Elizondo and others have been met by intense criticism. Most Latino theologians, such as María Pilar Aquino and Gloria Inés Loya, present its historical specificity as an important term of its experience and path to salvation. The recuperative properties of mestizaje are significant for postcolonial scholars. Both Chicana feminists Pérez and Sandoval reveal how the new mestizaje offers a political method or compass for mobilizing oppositional forms of consciousness that will produce equity. It is a method that develops and exceeds the modes of assimilation, revolution, supremacy, and separatism, each of which is a strategy unable to reconcile or allow for the multiple social positions and perspectives as delineated by Anzaldúa.
By the early twenty-first century, the concept of hybridity and cross-cultural contact had permeated social science and humanities scholarship. It also continued to travel North, and French-Canadian scholars relate it to métissage (French; "mixed blood"). Whether universal or not, the contemporary reconfiguration explores sites of convergence and disjuncture with attention to the pressure of power, and its meaning can be used to assess the distance between mestizaje and métissage. Nevertheless, reformulations of mestizaje have recuperative power for those maligned by nation and empire, sexism and homophobia, material and political displacement. If the analysis of intercultural exchange includes attention to ambiguity and contradiction, mestizaje can continue to offer a strategy of resistance and liberation in the twenty-first century.
See also Creolization, Caribbean ; Ethnicity and Race ; Identity, Multiple .
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Karen Mary Davalos